This is an excerpt from the Washington Post article, “Made in America”, a story about 4 iconic American foods that got their origins from foreign immigration. Great article, you can view the full article here.
Chile con Queso
Northern Mexico’s chile con queso, in fact, bears little resemblance to the Tex-Mex version across the border. The traditional preparation might include peppers charred and peeled in the kitchen, tomatoes plucked from the garden and cheese produced by a local artisan. By contrast, the common Tex-Mex version can be prepared in a microwave in a matter of minutes, with a block of process yellow cheese and a can of tomatoes and peppers. American manufacturing and marketing, you could argue, is responsible for one of America’s favorite party foods.
Created in 1918 by the Monroe Cheese Company in Monroe, N.Y., Velveeta didn’t enter the American mainstream until it was acquired by Kraft Foods nearly a decade later. Kraft first marketed Velveeta on its nutritional benefits, which is ironic given that, decades later, the U.S. government would inform Kraft that its product does not meet the definition of process cheese food. None of this matters, of course, to chile con queso fans, who rely on Velveeta because of its ability to melt into a smooth goo.
Ro-Tel tomatoes and chiles
Before industrialization, chile con queso was a dish that could be prepared only when chiles and tomatoes were in season. Carl Roettele and his wife helped change that. In 1943, they opened a facility in Elsa, Tex., less than an hour from the Mexico border, where they canned tomatoes and green chiles for customers in the Lone Star State. Certain that few could pronounce his surname, Roettele decided to abbreviate the brand name to Ro-Tel. It would not be his last stroke of genius.
Decades before Roettele opened his plant, German immigrant William F. Gebhardt had developed chili powder, which he began selling in the 1890s. Like Ro-Tel, Eagle Brand Chili Powder allowed cooks to spice cheese sauces without waiting for chile season. Chili powders were used in early versions of Tex-Mex queso, including Mexican rarebit, a spicy take on Welsh rarebit. But the most famous use may have been in Felix’s Queso, a bright orange glop beloved at Felix Mexican Restaurant in Houston before the place closed in 2008. The queso was “thick and oozing with red grease,” wrote Fain. “It looked frightening but was surprisingly fluffy and addictive.”
‘Cover the nation in queso’
Almost from the start, Ro-Tel seemed to grasp how customers would use its product. Since at least 1949, the company has been selling convenience in chile con queso, according to food historian Robert Moss. That was the year Ro-Tel started running newspaper ads promoting its “Spanish Style Cheese Dip and Spread.” It included just two ingredients: Half a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chiles and a half-pound of American-type processed cheese.
Ro-Tel would later join forces with Kraft Foods, the parent of Velveeta, to solidify the relationship between the two products. As the years went by, and ConAgra acquired Ro-Tel in 2002, the partnership would become an unlikely one between two giant food companies that otherwise compete for business.
Before the invention of chili powder in the late 1800s, queso dishes were typically limited to the hot summer months when chile peppers thrived.
Left: A Mexican official examines chili powder at an American factory. (Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company Records/University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections/Conagra)
Yet the relationship has survived. Several years ago, the companies went on a barnstorming campaign to sell queso outside the primary markets of Texas and the south-central part of the country: Two “queso queens” hopped on a “Quesobago” recreational vehicle to visit football games and grocery stores. The mission? “To cover the nation in queso.” It’s little wonder that, for many Americans, Velveeta and Ro-Tel is queso.
Those Americans do not include Gloria Reyna, co-owner of Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, which offers its own kind of chile con queso convenience.
Gloria Reyna, co-owner of Matt’s El Rancho in Austin
Joe Angel Rico Hernandez, kitchen manager
Gloria Reyna and Head Chef talk about Queso in a video from the Washington Post
If Houston’s lack of zoning laws are any indication, Texans have never been fond of restrictions. The same holds true for chile con queso. Countless restaurants have devised their own versions, none more famous than one at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin. This dip was invented in the 1980s when Bob Armstrong, former Texas land commissioner, asked Matt Martinez Jr. to whip him up “something different.” Martinez combined the restaurant’s housemade chile con queso with taco meat and guacamole, and a star was born. The dip has outlived both the chef and the politician. Matt’s El Rancho sells more than 100,000 Bob Armstrong Dips each year, says Reyna – and now delivers nationwide.
It’s a sign that when it comes to convenience, queso knows no borders in America.